He traveled 2,768 miles from his comfort zone in Southern California to do what he felt was needed to grow as a football player and a man.
But among the loneliest moments quarterback Brad Kaaya recalled during an ultimately heartbreaking 2014 season was walking into the Atlantic Coast Conference Night of Legends, where he was about to receive his Rookie of the Year award.
“It was rough,’’ said Kaaya, then a true freshman accompanied by UM’s all-time rusher Duke Johnson, now in the NFL. “You’re entering an awards ceremony and Georgia Tech and Florida State’s bands are playing and their posters are hanging and they’re talking about the ACC championship the next day.
“I just wish that could have been us playing Florida State for the title. I just wish the guys on the scout team, second team, third team – guys who worked equally hard — could have gotten the same recognition.
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“It felt bittersweet. It felt lonely.’’
Kaaya, who turned 20 on Thursday, is lonely no more.
As Saturday’s 2015 season opener against Bethune-Cookman approaches, any bitterness has been replaced by a team bond. The Hurricanes insist the only bond as strong is the hunger for their Coastal Division title.
At the epicenter of the newfound unity and hope: Kaaya, who has emerged as the undeniable Hurricanes leader on the field, off the field and in the classroom, where he gets plenty of A’s and plans to concentrate his studies in the school of communication — “maybe public relations or advertising,’’ he said. “I love UM.’’
UM coach Al Golden said there’s “no comparison’’ between the wide-eyed teenager who traveled from West Hills, California, a year ago to the more mature, outspoken and confident young man of today.
“He elevates the whole building,’’ Golden said. “It’s his team. It’s certainly his offense.’’
The “team-first” mantra has permeated Miami’s world. And “team” is what arguably the finest true freshman quarterback in the nation in 2014 will need as a sophomore in 2015 if he is to lead the Canes back to elite status after their late-game loss to FSU broke their backs and spirit — and three more consecutive losses brought them their second losing season (6-7) in 17 years.
The most important position is filled by the Hurricanes’ best player, but what does or doesn’t surround Kaaya in 2015 will make the difference.
Three of five starting offensive linemen, tight end/Mackey Award finalist Clive Walford, first-round receiver Phillip Dorsett and star tailback Johnson have departed for the NFL.
“Football is the best team sport in America,’’ said 1992 Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta, another California kid who came to Coral Gables and dominated, “but Brad is only one piece of it.
“It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, you need 10 other guys on offense to do their jobs for the quarterback to look good.’’
Kaaya, ranked 22nd in the nation in passing efficiency last season, threw for 3,198 yards and 26 touchdowns in 13 games. He completed 221 of 378 passes, with 12 interceptions.
Only one freshman, Arizona’s Anu Solomon, threw for more yards: 3,793 in 14 games, tossing the ball 540 times to get there, with nine interceptions to 28 touchdowns.
Solomon, however, was a redshirt freshman — what Kaaya might have been now if former senior quarterback Ryan Williams hadn’t torn his ACL in the spring of 2014.
J.T. Barrett of Ohio State, also a redshirt freshman, was No. 2 nationally in passing efficiency after throwing for 2,834 yards in 12 games, with 34 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.
Kaaya’s 26 touchdown passes tied him with UM’s 1986 Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde — the father of third-team UM quarterback Vincent Testavderde — for third in a single season.
Kaaya, backed up by redshirt freshman Malik Rosier, said he wants to “work tighter windows’’ in 2015, which he will have to do to improve in the red zone, one of the Hurricanes’ deficiencies last season.
“Anticipation, that’s a huge thing,’’ said Kaaya, trimmer but stronger at 6-4 and 210 pounds than he was when he came to Coral Gables at about 226. “A lot of that goes with playing around your receivers a full year. I also think my body has changed, so I’ve gotten a lot better at throwing on the run — the sprintouts and nakeds [bootlegs] and rollouts. A lot better.’’
UM offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach James Coley said the difference in Kaaya from last season is “night and day, which for me is thrilling, because he’s not trying to adjust to the college game, he’s not learning a brand new system, he’s not trying to become familiar with teammates.
“The impact of a true freshman touching the ball every play is that a lot falls on his shoulders. Brad did as much as he could coming here a month before the season, but now he knows the plays like the back of his hand, and he knows the players and how they run routes. His anticipation to throw the ball early and get the ball in those tight windows is outstanding — and his accuracy is elite.’’
Former Miami coach Butch Davis, the architect of a UM dynasty built from the ashes of Miami’s previous NCAA sanctions in the mid 1990s, coached the Hurricanes from 1995 through 2000.
Davis was asked about the growth of UM’s last great quarterback, yet another Californian, Ken Dorsey, from his true freshman season in 1999 to his 2000 sophomore season, the start of UM’s 34-game win streak.
Dorsey played garbage time in the 1999 home opener against FAMU until he was forced to enter a game on a cold November night at No. 2 Virginia Tech, where the Hokies sacked UM starter Kenny Kelly four times and finally sent him to the sidelines physically and mentally broken. The Canes lost that game 43-10, but Dorsey went on to start the final three games of the season (Rutgers, Syracuse and Temple), which UM won by a combined score of 155-13.
Behind Dorsey, UM finished 11-1 in 2000, then won the national title in 2001 and played for the title again in 2002, losing to Ohio State in a controversial, double-overtime game.
“Kenny Dorsey had the advantage of kind of growing up with Reggie Wayne and Andre Johnson and Clinton Portis, guys like that,’’ Davis said. “A pretty significant number of Kaaya’s supporting cast is gone.
“Kaaya can certainly overcome that, but it’s a big challenge. The good news is that quarterback is the No. 1 position, and if you have a guy you believe is the right one, you have a shot.’’
Coley already has said Kaaya will have more autonomy at the line of scrimmage, where he can change calls or run dummy cadences to see how the defense reacts. In essence, Coley said, “he has the keys to the car.’’
Unlike Dorsey, Kaaya had an entire season to grow as a quarterback, and now “the biggest jump,’’ Torretta said, “will probably be from the coaches having an increased comfort level in putting more on his shoulders.’’
What can UM fans look forward to this season?
“Seeing us utilize our personnel very effectively,’’ Kaaya said. “That will be the biggest benefit of having so many young guys who are starting to mature — an upgraded personnel who will get into a lot more formations and do a lot more things.’’
Kaaya acknowledged that a schedule with Nebraska at home on Sept. 19 and three preseason AP Top-25 teams — No. 10 FSU in Tallahassee on Oct. 10, No. 12 Clemson at home Oct. 24 and No. 16 Georgia Tech at home Nov. 21 — presents “some interesting challenges.’’
“I don’t know what adversity will come our way,’’ Kaaya said, “but how we react can make or break a season. I hope we respond, because this team can be very successful.’’
Element of success: Quarterback
Brad Kaaya’s growth from Year One will, in turn, elevate the play of his receivers.
Expect Stacy Coley to put the sophomore slump behind him and pick up from his outstanding freshman season, when he had 591 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns and led UM with 1,461 all-purpose yards — the 10th-highest single-season total in school history. Senior Herb Waters’ speed and the soft hands of Rashawn Scott, who redshirted because of injuries, should help compensate for the loss of first-round NFL receiver Phillip Dorsett.